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By Kelly McDougall, a Self-Reg Foundations Program Learner

Mom: He’s not bad! He’s stressed!

Dad: What could he be stressed about? Not getting the Lego set he wants for his birthday? 

Mom: Stress isn’t just how adults perceive it. It affects everyone. Scientists define it as anything that disrupts homeostasis and requires a person to burn energy to get back to calm. We experience stress across five domains. It can be hidden, quietly depleting our energy.

Dad: What do you mean?

Mom: Well, lack of sleep and hunger are biological stressors, while changes in routine cause stress in the emotion domain. Cognitive stressors might be interruptions or making tough decisions, and being late is a prosocial stressor. A birthday party can cause social stress. The point is: stress is coming at all of us in countless and complex ways.

Dad: No wonder I’m so tired all the time.

Mom: Our son seems to have a heightened stress reactivity which causes him to expect stress all the time. This hypervigilance makes his heart beat faster and he burns more energy, leaving him so tired he can’t pay attention. It also makes him impulsive and causes him to assume threats are everywhere – even when it’s just us checking in on him. I wonder whether that’s the reason he often says kids are mean to him at school.

Dad: But why him? Other families we know aren’t struggling like this.

Mom: It could be because of his time in the NICU. It was scary, painful, and noisy for him and we couldn’t always be there to soothe him.

Dad: It’s heartbreaking to think about that. But what do we do when he’s calling me names or kicking you? 

Mom: That’s his fight response. We have to “turn off his alarm.” To do this, we need to stay calm. Remembering he’s having a stress response makes it easier. Then we can lend him our calm by being gentle with our voices, body language, and touch. 

We also need to ask, “Why?” (is he behaving this way), and “Why now?” We get to be “stress detectives.” If we find the stressor – like a smell or a scratchy tag – we can remove it. We can also make other changes to prevent another meltdown. 

Finally, we help him understand and experience how calm feels. Once he’s got that figured out, we help him calm himself. Maybe reading, building, or doing something physical will make him feel better.

Dad: Sounds good.

Mom: Self-regulation won’t rid our child of challenging behaviours. But we can keep working through the process and life can be more peaceful.

While based on my experience with my partner and son, this conversation was imagined for a final task in Foundations 2.

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